The Trial by Franz Kafka displays the life of Joseph K, a bank employee and supposedly good citizen of a society in which there is universal peace. The novel begins abruptly when K is delivered an indictment by three strangers who despite their civilian attire are said to be official warders. Though there is no clarity as to what the charge is, K accepts his proceeding as a personal project or obsession which from then on consumes his reality. His social life becomes a montage of witnesses, corroborators, defendants and testimonies regarding his arrest while authority is an undercurrent driven by everyone and no one. By the essence of its own inertia, K’s world is a banal confinement, a moral prison illuminated by his allegation.
Kafka’s society is a surreal bureaucracy upheld by each person’s commitment to their job and functions as psychological totalitarianism where morality seems to be the only consistent logic between characters. The few stories they share with one another are devoid of direct authenticity. Instead, their interactions and conversations are impersonal and only relate to the Law. Outside of trial affairs there is an unsettling atomization where no one is able to demonstrate emotional intelligence or any sort of skilled communication whatsoever. K’s desires creep dormantly and his interactions are tormented by a deeply frustrated inner monologue that isolates him from shared experiences. Though there is not an evident list of laws, there is a social conduct that the characters manage to abide by. They appear to embody an order in which the foundation has been long lost. It’s as if the timeworn relics of shame and guilt, which once were propagated by rules, are now all that remains. Remnants which become a new genesis for their decrepit choices and actions.
Contained in every attic, behind every closed door, the trial accumulates out of reach from K. The superficial innocence he once upheld as a working citizen, a banker, is instantly tainted in becoming the accused. Though many others who are accused are able to drift in their cases for a long duration, K pleads for an immediate conclusion and his attempts at negotiating seduce his penalty nearer. He exists in a purgatory between the accusation and his defense until he ultimately conforms in death. A sentence that finalizes his erasure from the narrative of the trial, seemingly the only transformative act for someone with such scarce creativity.
This is the slow, dystopian account of K’s adaptation to his surroundings, the demands of the social. Amidst the social there is the Trial, a hideousness which culls subjects to process, writhes and objectifies them, making an example that renews the logic of civility. From my experience, personal ideas or skills that have the potential to benefit my individuality often draw me in toward groups, crowds or “anarchist milieus”, becoming nothing more than the bait which ensnares me to yet another trial. No matter how interesting, stimulating or supportive their company may appear to be on the outside, their establishment merely enables inner tribunals. I leave those scenes with a Kafka line in mind, “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.”
Is the most common, parasitic compulsion which keeps so many bound to slavery, to society, that of belonging? Living in a fixed place within the bleak conditions of modernity for months, years, a lifetime, makes adaptation especially imperative, inescapable even. When one pulls forth the will to change their surroundings, relocate, start new relationships, is it not only to re-adapt? If adaptation is the modification of individual and social activity in adjustment to cultural surroundings, then here lays the limitation of individual projectuality. By engaging with the social, there are agreements and rules that one is indebted to. This contract defines how one acts just as how language influences the seedling thought which emanates as speech. Therein, The Trial seems to be a parody of K’s inability to have agency within the narrative of a collective story. I too believe with Ibsen that the one who is most alone is the strongest one. To be alone is to demonstrate a rejected adaptation. After reading this book I am left wondering if it is K’s loneliness, sense of obligation, or fated circumstance that entangles him to the collective and initiates his metamorphosis from subject into object? The paper thin line that K straddles between living by his own volition and living by the expectations of others is a question which provokes the relentless search for new ways to navigate, new ways to live, as the Trial continually tries to enmesh us in its web.